Category Archives: immersive theatre

In defence of immersive theatre

I’m back. That was a much-longer-than-intended-unplanned hiatus. Apologies. (I’ll bore you with the reasons if you so wish, but let’s be succinct and say “life” happened, and I was a bit busy. Mostly with theatre-related stuff, but not enough intervening time to write about any of it).

The big theatre news of last week was the announcement of a new Punchdrunk show! And yes of course I’m excited at that prospect. But the internet saw this, and lots of people in the know were very unhappy, and other people saw the kerfuffle and decided that they too should be outraged by what little they knew about the show, even though tickets haven’t gone on sale yet and no one has actually seen it. A bit like when Jerry Springer: The Opera found its way into the Daily Mail, and lots of people who never knew about it before were MORTALLY OFFENDED at the FOUR THOUSAND SWEAR WORDS in the score, and some of them may have died from the ensuing aneurysm from so much blood-boiling FURY.

So, why has this made some people so grumpy? It mostly comes down to Punchdrunk being victims of their own success. Having been amongst the early pioneers of immersive theatre, they certainly lead the field in their particular variety. They’ve had generous grants from the Arts Council (sometimes at the expense of other companies) which have helped enable them to stage shows on an epic scale with beyond-your-wildest-dreams production values, select some of the finest performers from across the globe, and present it in such a way that it develops a cult following, and keeps audiences coming back for more. Any morsel from them is surrounded by immense hype and speculation… but also the accusation of being too exclusive.

They have the perfect storm on their hands:

  • Tickets only available to those who enter a ballot
  • Only two audience per show slot
  • The limited number of performances
  • The necessity to buy tickets in pairs
  • A fixed £55 price point
  • An estimated 6 hour running time
  • The requirement to be physically able to stand/walk/(run?) for the duration of the show
  • The means (by contactless card or Oyster) to travel by London public transport
  • The preclusion of anyone pregnant, or who has issues with confined spaces or stressful situations

Quite understandably, some are annoyed by this – both individual elements, and the combinations thereof. That it reserves the Punchdrunk experience for those who are able-bodied and financially comfortable, rather than working to make the arts more accessible. For those who are interested in this kind of theatre, this will be THE hot ticket of 2017. But for another fiercely-debated immersive experience, You Me Bum Bum Train (which sends audience one at a time through a labyrinth of rooms and situations they may never encounter in their ordinary life) internet queues for the £49 tickets reached into quintuple figures within minutes of going on sale, and it wasn’t long before some were appearing on ticket re-sale sites for more than 10 times their face value. I can only presume a ticket ballot is to limit this as much as possible.

As for the rest on the list, Punchdrunk make an art out of combining cinematic spectacle with powerful intimacy, and serve it up with a generous helping of unsettling tension about what might lurk down the end of that gloomy corridor, and the lingering eye contact which says “follow me, I want to show you something“. In order to achieve this, sometimes they need big spaces for audiences to explore, and sometimes small numbers of people (at times it’s just you, a single member of the audience and one actor. In a small room. Or a cupboard). It’s not for everyone – by which I mean that many people have said “oh God, I can’t think of anything worse!“, but equally, that level of close-proximity intensity is hard to come by in row D of the upper circle.

The Drowned Man

Punchdrunk – The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. Photo by Julian Abrams

The crux of many arguments seems to be: “these things combined make it very difficult for most people to experience this kind of work, and that isn’t fair.” Be it access to tickets, physical/mental well-being, finance, stamina, or any other reason, creativity comes at a price: particularly when you take performance out of a traditional theatre building, and audience out of a numbered seat. But Punchdrunk are not the only ones to employ any of these techniques – there’s a huge number of companies producing work which makes varying demands of its audience. I don’t believe any artistic work begins with the foundation of “how can we make it really difficult for people to experience this?” More likely, quite the opposite.

Traditional theatre (proscenium arch, numbered seats) is guilty of many of these perceived crimes too: it’s not uncommon for top price tickets in the stalls/dress circle to command prices in triple figures, particularly with a big name in the cast. Shows such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Hamilton are massively in demand, with entire batches of tickets selling out over a year in advance. Angels In America (albeit with a seated audience) had a total running time of over 7 hours. The most affordable seats are typically in the Upper Circle or Balcony, which can necessitate climbing a few flights of stairs, and some tiers are raked so steeply that they can induce nausea and dizziness in anyone with a fear of heights. Many theatres sell “restricted view” and “limited legroom” seats, which pose problem for people with back, hip and knee issues, so standing may be preferable. Theatres from Shakespeare’s Globe to the Donmar to the Royal Court offer standing tickets. Ghost Stories came with a necessary content warning – at one point I was sat wondering who was screaming (until I realised it was me).

Perhaps I’m lucky in that I’m an able-bodied adult, with a bit of disposable income, in commuting distance of London. Many aren’t, and it’s vital that as much of the arts as possible is made accessible to these people as well. We’ve seen an increase in recent years in accessible performances, featuring audio-description, StageText, BSL interpreters, relaxed performances with adjusted lighting/sound etc. Step-free access is improving (although still an issue in many older theatres), and new-build venues can meet far more of these requirements while still offering versatility in terms of staging. But how the hell do you offer these choices in an unconventional setting without compromising the content of a show? (A rhetorical question, since I don’t know – but many companies do offer accessible performances, and have clearly thought about ways to accommodate different requirements).

So yes, there are shows which require an audience to follow/keep up with roaming performers. Mostly this will be at a walking pace, but I have raced up 5 flights of stairs in Sleep No More in hot pursuit of Macduff. I’ve crawled through tunnels in The Good Neighbour. I’ve dived into tiny cupboards and curled up under tables during Heist, hoping that the marauding guards can’t hear my heart thundering in my chest. I’ve tottered around Covent Garden’s cobbles with various panto characters in Once Upon A Christmas (while wearing hi-vis and looking like a lipstick-Braveheart). I’ve climbed up onto the roof of Theatre Delicatessen to watch stunning aerial acrobats in the fading daylight during Shelter Me. I’ve traipsed around on gravel for 3 hours for a mediocre promenade version of Romeo & Juliet (not all “immersive” shows are good). Some require excellent mobility and some can only take small numbers of audience at a time. Do we tell these companies too that they are excluding too many people?

shelter me

Circumference Shelter Me at Theatre Delicatessen

But for each of these, there are still shows which fit under the immersive umbrella, but don’t require an Olympic level of fitness. Several companies are creating exceptional multi-sensory work with cutting edge technology and live effects. Yet those too present their own access challenges. Ring, a binaural piece by Fuel takes place in complete darkness wearing headphones (and I mean complete darkness – your eyes never adjust to the blackout). On one hand you’re seated and have no need for vision… but it’s no good if you’re deaf/hard of hearing, and the psychological effects of the sound combined with the hour-long blackout are very intense (they brief you beforehand on what to do if you can’t handle it and need to get out: hand in the air, say “help” repeatedly, and someone with night vision goggles will come and find you). In a sold out performance of 100, I counted 5 seats that were empty at the end when the lights came up. Yet as an experience, I was completely transported into that narrative – the essence of really good theatre.

Every Punchdrunk fan is waiting for their next large-scale show, where they take up residence in a building (usually for a year or so), with exploration opportunities aplenty. Meanwhile they’ve been working on smaller scale projects, including their 2015 collaboration with Absolut, Silverpoint – but not having an iPhone meant I missed out on this. But in addition to their site-specific performance work, Punchdrunk have a well-established enrichment programme, sharing their magical worlds with everyone from primary school children to adults with dementia. The Lost Lending Library has been journeying around London schools for a number of years, arriving without warning (for the kids at least), nourishing imaginations and nurturing reading and writing skills for a few weeks, then disappearing without a trace. Given that I’m not at primary school, I’ve missed out on this too. Do I resent that? Not in the slightest.

So: do we fight to make everything accessible for everyone? Accessibility is improving, but still has a long way to go. Or do we accept that part of what makes theatre so special is its diversity and spectacle, which as a consequence, might not be suited to everyone? Do we tell lighting designers they can’t use strobes, or advise people at the ticket-purchase stage that they’ll feature in the production? Do we tell actors they’ll just have to do more performances to accommodate everyone who wants to see a small-but-in-demand show? Do we tell producers to scrimp on the quality to make the tickets a bit more affordable? Do we tell writers to make a show that’s a bit nicer or easier, because we find it all just a bit too offensive, scary, weird, unpleasant, difficult, controversial? Or do we celebrate the smorgasbord of creativity in all its messy, impractical, thought-provoking, magnificent glory and accept that we’re lucky that any of it gets made at all?

Let theatre be theatre, however it may manifest itself, for its own sake.

Advertisements

The Drowned Man (Punchdrunk) – 17th and final time

It’s all over.

I don’t think I will experience anything quite like last night again for a long time to come.  If you had told me a year ago that my first ticket would lead me to see The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable a total of 17 times, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was so nervous that I wasn’t even sure if I was going to like it.  But I did; given the number of friends who only visited the show for the first time a few weeks ago and are now kicking themselves for not going sooner, I’m glad that I discovered it when I did.

So yesterday, 600 of us descended on Paddington for the last hurrah, 99% returning visitors, but word spread like wildfire that there were a few first-timers in our midst (God help them. It’s overwhelming enough first time to an ordinary show – what they must’ve made of the levels of delirium that pervaded every big scene is anyone’s guess).  I joined the queue 2 hours before the doors opened and the line was already snaking halfway around the building – there were many familiar faces and a real party mood, tinged with sadness that it was the last show.  Inside, there was a lovely crowd – none of the elbows-out ruthless attitude which I’d feared.  People held doors for each other, apologised quietly for bumps and trodden-on toes, and made sure people behind them had a good view too (and did their best when a room was packed to the rafters).  Everyone I shared space with was polite and considerate.  Well done fellow audience.

But with 30 characters and scenes running simultaneously all over the building, how the hell are you supposed to choose how to spend your last show?!  Even with access to The Drafting Room (which has a board indicating who’s where doing what at any given time), it was going to be tough to see everything.  I had initially toyed with the idea of floor loops (an hour in the basement, a couple of scenes on the ground floor and the rest in the town and studio – I’ve spent enough time up in the desert recently to lay that to rest) but I realised that there were just a few scenes which I hadn’t seen since my early visits – scenes I just needed to see one last time.  Anything else was a bonus.

We got in about 20 minutes later than I was used to, so my initial plan went out the window.  As we stumbled through the box maze, I could hear the first thumps and strings of Burning Hell for the hoedown in the bar.  The atmosphere was electric, the crowd stood 4 or 5 deep clapping and cheering in a way that’s usually reserved for the finale.  I spotted the return of Badlands Jack (River Carmalt) and broke the ‘no speaking’ rule in my excitement.  I watched that hoedown scene 3 times over and not once did the performers falter.  If I could bottle that feeling and sell it, I would be very rich indeed.

I finally got to what happens to Mary (Laure Bachelot) after her affair with Dwayne – her dance in the trees and woodchips is wracked with guilt and self-loathing.  I later managed to catch Alice and Claude Esteé (Pascale Burgess and Ira Mandela Siobhan) doing their synchronised chair dance in the casting office, dripping with megalomania. This was soon followed by Alice’s dance with Lila (Kath Duggan) on the boardroom table, still smooth and slightly sinister, to the doom-jazz of Street Tattoo by Bohren & Der Club of Gore.  I later wandered down to the ground floor to catch Wendy’s dance through the trees and later to Stanford’s Party.  Four of the scenes on my to-do list.  Utter perfection.

But with more performers than roles, it would’ve been a shame for some to not get their share of the glory.  But Punchdrunk are experts in performance logistics and the way they handled this was so ingenious that I pity anyone who missed it.  At various points, there would be a handover from one actor to another and I was lucky enough to see the role of the PA switch from Stephanie Nightingale to Fania Grigoriou.  They stood in a crowded corridor with Mr Stanford (Sam Booth), he took off Fania’s white mask, both girls slapped him, he handed the mask to Fania who positioned herself opposite Steph.  Simultaneously, Steph removed the string of pearls from around her neck and placed them around Fania’s neck as Fania placed the white mask on Steph’s face.  Slick as hell.  I only wish I’d seen more of these handovers.  Bit by bit, we had a whole new cast take to their roles (some of whom had done more than one role that night) – a real who’s who of Punchdrunk performers.

I also caught the dance between Dwayne, Faye and Mary (Oliver Hornsby-Sayer, Sonya Cullingford and Kate Jackson) in the town – as flirty and fun as ever.  I had one of my fingernails painted red by the Drugstore Girl (Anna Finkel) while I waited for the fight between Andy and Miguel (TJ Lowe and Georges Hann) – this was the very first scene I saw on my first visit.  It was wonderful to have that feeling of bringing things full circle.  Two last scenes ticked off my to-do list and the building was now my oyster.  So I followed Miguel.  After his anointment by the Dust Witch and dance in the sand, he offered his hand and took me back to his tent for me to wash him (I should’ve wrung the sponge out a bit more as I utterly soaked his trousers – sorry Georges!) – a nice little perk which I’d never had in 16 previous visits.

But the finale.  Oh the finale.

After what must’ve been a physically, mentally and emotionally demanding final show, the entire cast pulled out all the stops for one final blistering performance of the hoedown dance.  As they squished everyone into a line for a final bow, the roar from the crowd was deafening and went on for several minutes.  There were many quivering bottom lips and welling eyes at the outpouring of appreciation from the audience.  A fitting and well deserved tribute to a cast who have given so much of themselves to us in the past 12 months.  We then watched rapt as Stanford walked out of the gloom and put a gun to his head and fired the final shot – an inevitable end which ties in nicely with the words in the original blurb stating that the studio closed overnight in mysterious circumstances.

Someone said to me that there are several stages to a Punchdrunk addiction; you come out the end of your first show thinking “I need to find out what’s going on”.  So you go back and scratch the surface of the two love triangles and some of the other characters.  Around visits 3-4 it becomes “I need to see everything”.  So you start to fill in the gaps by following characters and certain actors which naturally leads to “I need to follow X”.  You start to have favourite scenes, dances and actors.  This then develops into “I need to see Y playing Z”.  The more you go, the more you discover that something really sinister is going on, even if it’s barely referred to in speech, there’s plenty of evidence on paper as you read letters and rummage through drawers.  Where is George Buchanan?  What is the Truth Manifesto?  What is Petit Plan and why is the Doctor prescribing it to everyone?  Which brings us neatly back to…. “I need to find out what’s going on”.  I was just about to move onto that final stage.  It’s probably best for my bank balance that I didn’t.

So after many tears and hugs in the bar, we took one last look at the microcosm which had become so familiar, walked back down the metal gantry to collect our belongings and stepped out through those big red concertina doors into the fading daylight for the final time.  It hurt like hell to leave, but I’d had a show which had left me feeling very satisfied.  There are not enough thank yous in the world for the cast and crew who have worked so hard to make this the show that it has been.  Now to let my bank balance recover and save up for the next one.  I’ll see you in the queue next time we mask up.

But for now, I’ll leave you with my favourite piece of music from the show.  If I just close my eyes, it’s 30th October 1962 and I’m stood in Encino by the fountain.  At the end of Straight Street, Dwayne and Mary are dancing by the red Studebaker and through the window of the Drugstore, I can see Harry Greener peddling tins of Miracle Salve from a battered suitcase to a girl behind the counter.

I am home.

The Drowned Man (Punchdrunk) – A final farewell

In little over a week, I will walk out of Temple Studios for the final time.  Those words fill me with dread, but it is true.  I fully expect to be a weepy, mascara-streaked wreck, along with countless other Punchdrunk addicts with whom I will share that last, precious show.  Several have become friends through a facebook group, resulting in many evenings of standing in a queue together (sometimes pre-show drinks in a pub) before wandering alone for 3 hours through the gloomy world of Temple Studios and then re-convening in the bar for excitable post-show analysis.  People I never knew a year ago who are the sole source of my addiction – habit-enablers, every last one of them.

I never expected this to happen.  Seriously.  (I would’ve budgeted for it for a start).

A year ago, when I booked my first ticket I was some semblance of a normal, rational person.  The people who had seen Les Mis 7 times?  Weird.  Just weird.  Why not go and see something else?  I’d seen a few London shows twice and even seeing The 39 Steps 3 times seemed borderline ridiculous (it is good though – if you haven’t seen it, you should go. /tangent).  My typical budget for theatre is around the £30 mark and I will move heaven and earth to find a good seat for the cheapest price I can get.  I winced at spending £45+ for that first ticket, thinking to myself “this had better be worth it…”

My first visit was utterly overwhelming.  It took me about 3 days to get my head around everything I’d seen (and not seen).  Various friends went and we tried to compare scenes – only they’d been on an entirely different journey to me, so it was hopeless.  Other friends were deeply suspicious and remain so to this day (I like to think they just fear what it’ll do to their bank balance if they go just once).  I even persuaded my hairdresser to go – she never even knew anything like this existed, but she loved it.  If you are prepared to give it a chance, I actually think Punchdrunk are remarkably accessible compared to many other shows which are a bit ‘out there’.

But it took 4 months for me to go back.  I thought a second (perhaps third) time would be enough to see all of it.  I must’ve seen most of it, surely?  No.  After that second visit, I had sand in my shoes, (stage) blood in my hair and a head full of questions.  I started to buy tickets in 2s and 3s, wondering if that would ever be enough to see all of it.  A series of Q&A sessions only served to reinforce my admiration for the show, the design, the meticulous detail (right down to the smell of TCP in the doctor’s office), the choreography, the sheer logistical nightmare of running scenes simultaneously, requiring performers to walk into opposite ends of a room at precisely the same moment and start a scene with the absolute surety that the other person will be there exactly on cue, the constant self-referencing which neatly ties one aspect to another.  One of the directors had estimated that to watch every single scene in some sort of order would take around 12-15 hours.  Their cast are trained in multiple roles so there are something like 86 possible permutations.  It is mind boggling in every single way.

Yet they make it look so easy.

It very definitely isn’t.  I’ve seen a few immersive/promenade/contemporary things in the last year, some more successful than others.  Part of the problem is that Punchdrunk have set the benchmark so high in every respect that it’s hard to draw comparison.  I have found myself in other productions getting annoyed that a tangle of cables hasn’t been boxed in, that ‘fine dining’ has been served on paper plates with plastic cutlery, that there are bottlenecks when moving audience from one location to another, that there is a short wait for it to be my (or my group’s) turn to see a scene.  But this is what you let yourself in for with experimental theatre – the ideas are often great and each respective company has clearly expended their every last resource and ounce of creativity to make it work to the best of their ability – if I wanted something safe and predictable, I’d go and sit in a numbered seat in an auditorium.

So it is with the impending 17th visit to The Drowned Man that I look back on everything I’ve experienced.  Theatre going won’t be the same ever again.  Whilst I will be incredibly sad once it’s all over, I find solace in knowing that they have many ideas, if they can just find the right building.  It has also taught me many things; I will be directing a play at my own theatre for February 2015 and this has given me the confidence to be brave with my set design and lighting – to not be afraid of the careful use of silence.

So I would like to say thank you to Punchdrunk, to their performers for their boundless stamina and the exquisite tenderness of those 1:1 encounters which, for a fleeting few minutes at least, were for me and me alone.  To their backstage crew/front of house team who tirelessly keep the nuts and bolts of the show ticking over with such finesse – I will forever remember Summer 2013 to Summer 2014 as the year when one theatre production suddenly and unexpectedly consumed my every waking moment (and some very lucid dreams too).  I wish I’d accepted sooner that I’d be going as many times as I did – I might’ve stood a chance of following characters one at a time in a more methodical fashion rather than running around trying to see everything.

Time to start saving up for the next one…

 

Before this starts getting too morose, one of the things that came out of the facebook group was an immense amount of fan art – there are some incredibly talented designers in our midst.  I, however cannot draw very well.  Especially not freehand on a computer, given that I am naturally left handed and use a mouse with my right hand.

None of these things prevented me from expressing myself by the medium of MS Paint.

I apologise for the following pictures.  They are unsuitable for those who wish to treasure their memories intact and for those with a weak bladder.  If you should wish to open the Pandora’s Box of my scenic interpretations, you will find them here.

Felix and Maxine – I am so sorry.  Facebook made me do it.

Macbeth – RIFT

Having thrown myself into this immersive theatre lark recently and as quite a fan of Shakespeare, the idea of an overnight Macbeth in a ‘secret London location’ was irresistible.  It was a little ambiguous as to whether the actors would be performing throughout the night with the whole play stretched over 12 hours or it was just going to be a late finish, but given that a ticket included sleeping arrangements (Hard – bring your own sleeping bag, Soft – you get a campbed, Deluxe – you get a bed), there was only one way to find out.

In anticipation that some of you have bought tickets and are waiting for your performance date, here are some important tips for you:

  • Wear comfortable shoes – you’ll be wandering about a lot.
  • Take a few warm layers with you – while the whole thing takes place inside the building in the height of summer, when the windows or balcony doors are open (or you are out on the balcony), it gets a bit nippy once it’s got dark.
  • Get there before your start time – there’s a few things to do before it actually starts (i.e. fill in a medical form).
  • Have something to eat before you go – there is a small vegan meal included, but it’s served quite late in the evening and you’ll need sustenance for all that wandering about.
  • Hard and Soft have changes to the sleeping arrangements (a bit of an upgrade!) – check your email.

Here endeth the tips.  The below contains spoilers.

On arrival at Balfron Tower, I went through the security check point of Borduria where I handed over my phone, filled in a medical form and almost had time to exchange money for Bordurian currency (was running late due to getting very lost at Stratford International trying to find the right DLR platform).  We were then escorted by Uri, Borduria’s finest security guard to enter the Rift between fact and fiction and step from daylight into a very dark underground car park….

Where I was promptly terrified by a witch.  I don’t know where she came from, but she appeared next to me very suddenly, before my eyes had had a chance to adjust to the dark.  I carried on walking ahead, following the rest of the people in my group, only to look round to my side and find the witch still walking alongside me as the other two appeared out of the gloom.  We gathered around an oil drum with a fire lit in the top for the opening scene.  Macbeth appeared along with a few accomplices, their military styling perfectly at home in the brutalist architecture.  As we walked along, we were treated to one of Macbeth’s cocky, self-assured soliloquies with knowing looks.  A strong start.

We were shepherded round to the entrance where our guide, Ivana was waiting.  We were ushered into a lift where there began a lot of deadpan instructions (pure comedy) as we rose up to the higher floors.  I’ve often wondered if immersive theatre could ever tackle comedy and it seems that it can, I just wasn’t sure if Macbeth was necessarily the right vehicle for it.  We were then taken up to a bar where we could buy drinks with Bordurian currency (luckily soft drinks were free).

As the evening progressed, we were ushered into various rooms, sometimes with other groups, so that we were taken to scenes, or scenes were brought to us.  We soon worked out that the flat we were taken to on repeated occasions was the flat we’d be staying in for the night.  While the scenes were good, there were often long gaps in between – I can only presume the actors had to do the same scene a few times over in various flats before the show could move on to the next bit.  These gaps were often covered with TV reports of ‘Birnam wood is on the move’ from man on the scene, Uri (We love Uri!  He should have his own show) or something from our guide, but usually some sort of comedy which frequently had us helpless with laughter.

But then suddenly we’d be jolted back to drama as Macbeth would storm into the room for an argument with his wife as they try to cover their tracks or an uneasy stand-off with Macduff.  Then they’d be out again and we’d either sit and wait or be ushered off to another room.  There was a frequent loss of impetus as the links between scenes are a long way from seamless.  This is where the logistics of promenade theatre become incredibly exposed.  As an audience, we were never quite sure when it had actually finished – we’d all settled down for drinks and a chat when a scene was brought to us – after this we were moved onto another bar.  After a few minutes, exhaustion kicked in and it was very much time to go to bed (a bunkbed rather than a campbed was much appreciated!)

But as I was there on opening night (presumably their first time with an audience that isn’t made up of their family and friends for dry runs), I am prepared to be forgiving.  They have set themselves an enormous task and are so close to pulling it off.  There are many things to like about this production: The acting I saw was brilliant and the guides remained in character at all times, even when things seemed to be going slightly awry.  There were also some lovely little touches to the set dressing such as a wedding photo of the Macbeths and the bloody bed in Duncan’s flat.

Macbeth is the perfect production for the building and comedy is a brilliant way to manage the gaps between scenes – I’m just not sure that the two things belonged together in the same show.  But if RIFT want to try their hand at a through-and-through comedy in promenade (with Uri, of course), I will absolutely be buying a ticket.

Heist Live – Marylebone Gardens (2nd helpings)

As you could probably tell from my last visit, I loved Heist Live – I was desperate to go back for more.  But with tickets sold out on the February/March run, I’d accepted that it’d just be a one off.  The mailing list had gone quiet and I’d already run through my head the question of: “would it even work as well a 2nd time around given how much I already know?”.  I just happened to be checking their twitter feed when I spotted a message stating that tickets would be on sale the following day.  How could I possibly turn it down?  The link came through from the mailing list and I immediately messaged a few friends who’d expressed an interest – I waited patiently for them to pick a date and time… but I could see the alarming pace at which nights were selling out (in the vain hope that some had been blocked off to be sold in a later batch – they weren’t).  With only a handful of nights with ‘1 ticket available’, I couldn’t risk letting it slip past.  Sorry friends!  As it turned out, they had sold the whole lot – in an hour.  I haven’t had this level of panic since trying to get a weekend ticket for Reading Festival in years gone by.

So as usual, I presented myself to the reception: “Ahh, Miss Bishop, a repeat offender…” and waited for my team to show up, a pair and a group of 5.  Having settled back into One-Step’s bar, myself, Fresh Prince and Molotov started chatting while the others trickled in.  Something told me that they’d been drinking.  As it turned out, they’d been drinking for 3 hours.  Any fears I had for this turning out exactly the same as last time (with 6 guys who were very strategic, organised and sober) were soon allayed – just not quite in the way I’d imagined.  This was going to be like herding cats.  Drunk cats.  Early Doors, Tourettes, Tiddlywink, The Molehill and Finelines did very little to prove me wrong.  Ahh well, at least it was going to be different.

Having broken into the neighbouring building, I knew there were a few keys things for us to find – but with past experience ringing in my ears, there was one crucial item missing.  Had we just not found it or was it elsewhere in the building?  Were we going to have to do the whole thing without it?  The rug had been pulled from under my feet and I was glad.  The makers have evidently taken returners into account and changed enough things to stop you from relying on past experience and knowing where things are.  All but for a bit of building layout knowledge, I was firmly back at square one – with the added bonus of tipsy accomplices.  Stealth was not one of our strong points – we blundered out into the corridor, straight into one of the roaming security guards.  Thankfully with just one pair of hands, he only managed to detain one or two people.

But with a team in such disarray (I think we got down to 3 of us at one point, while the others were all in various stages of arrest, lost and unsanctioned exploring), I did at least get to do a bit more hiding and running around.  One mini-team managed to bring a security guard right into our hiding place, causing him to bundle out every single person except for me – I’d managed to hide under a table out of sight and just stayed still and quiet.  I was probably left by myself for a minute.  I wasn’t sure if any of them would be back and whether to try to do it alone.  But a few reappeared and they seemed to finally have grasped the ‘not getting caught’ aspect (and sobered up a bit).  The organisation started to kick in.

When I was hoping for more action than last time, I hadn’t quite bargained on it being me who’d both break into the locked room AND steal the item in question – that was a huge adrenaline rush.  Pretty impressive given that last time I’d just stared at CCTV screens and not even set foot on the floor where that item was, so this floor was as new to me as it was to everyone else.  We’d largely pulled together by this point, but something went wrong towards the end, so we ultimately ended up with the same outcome as I had last time.

All in all, still a huge amount of fun.  I was also lucky enough to sit and chat to the directors in the bar after – a fascinating insight into what they’re trying to achieve in a niche of theatre which is still finding its own rules.  Would I go back for a 3rd time?  Definitely.  So if it comes around again, be ready to pick a date at a moment’s notice.  And please be sober…

Heist Live is on until Saturday 31st May 2014 at Marylebone Gardens, 35 Marylebone High Street, London, W1U 4QA.  This event is now sold out but a small number of returns may be available on certain dates.  All participants must be 18 or over.  For tickets and more information go to http://heistlive.com/ 

Sleep No More NYC (Punchdrunk) – Visits 1-4

My name is Gail and I am addicted to Punchdrunk.  A couple of months ago I was still in single figures on The Drowned Man, but was starting to get itchy feet.  I loved the show (and still very much do), but I found myself craving the magic of initial discovery – of climbing stairs, of peering around doors, of coming across actors mid-scene, never quite knowing what I’d find next.  There really was only one thing for it: a trip to New York to go and see Sleep No More, Punchdrunk’s take on Macbeth, with a 1930’s film noir twist.  Possibly one of the most expensive theatre expeditions I’ve ever been on, but thoroughly worth it.

Sleep No More has been running since 2011 and while I may “only” be up to 12 visits on The Drowned Man, some of the SNM superfans have clocked up over 70 performances and naturally have flown over to London just to see TDM (and some of them are already over 30 visits on that – I’m pretty sure they must be selling souls on eBay).  This has developed into something of an exchange programme with fans helping each other to get the best of each respective show, especially given that with flights, hotels, tickets and annual leave to consider, you might only be able to fit in a finite number of shows in any one trip.

After a lot of financial calculations (to get as much ‘bang for my buck’, as they say) I finally settled on 4 shows, every night Saturday to Tuesday.  With tickets purchased, there was then a fine balance to be struck: how to get the most out of 4 visits whilst retaining most of the magic.  Thankfully, some SNM fans kindly compiled a guide to help me (and others) to wander with purpose, to identify characters quickly yet without spoiling any surprises.  I was hesitant to read such a guide, but curiosity got the better of me and I was glad that I had read it before going in.  Any TDM fans planning to see SNM absolutely MUST read it before going.  It gives you one or two vital clues which will give you the best start you could possibly wish for, but without ruining anything.

The most important thing I found was to go in with a good solid knowledge of Macbeth to help ascertain characters – who they are in relation to each other, not just by the guide.  That and to be prepared for it to be crowded almost everywhere (but especially on the stairs), which makes it difficult to follow complete loops and to be prepared to lose an actor whom you’re following.  But the Hitchcock-esque styling is spot on and adds a real chill to the evening’s proceedings.  I was also lucky enough to be put in touch with some of the SNM superfans, so they met me post-show to help me mull over everything that I’d seen – I was immensely grateful to them and plan to return the favour if they come to London.

Here endeth the musings – the following video contains just the music from my favourite scene, which I must’ve watched 10 times across 4 visits, purely because it has the most exquisite dance sequence and truly evokes that 1930s glamour.  Beyond are spoilery details from all 4 of my visits.  If you have plans to see Sleep No More for yourself, here would be a good place to stop 🙂

Oh you’re still here.  Marvellous…

Visit 1
Due to a long immigration queue at JFK airport, I arrived at The McKIttrick Hotel much later than planned.  But I made it nonetheless and worked out that by the time I got in (pushing on for 8pm – it had started at 7pm) they’d be coming up to finishing the first loop and starting the second.  Having been through the usual drill with masks and a lift, I stepped into the dimly lit world.  I did as recommended in the guide and headed straight down to the basement to watch the sublime dance sequence that takes place to the above music.  Although my guide had hinted that Macbeth would be found on the balcony one floor up, so having spotted a man who fitted the description looking down to the dancefloor below, it seemed foolish to wander away from him.  To my complete surprise, I actually managed to stay with him for a whole loop, even if I didn’t always have the best view and had to really leg it up and down the stairs on several occasions just to keep pace.

This is a man who is browbeaten by his power hungry wife – their tempestuous relationship demonstrated by some powerful and violent choreography contrasted with moments of fragility e.g. the scene in the bath, above.  Spurred on by prophecies from the witches (including one mindblowing rave scene complete with strobes, lasers and thudding D&B, culminating in a hedonistic bloody ritual) one murder soon leads to another and another.  He suffocates King Duncan, caves in Banquo’s head with a brick and savagely beats the heavily pregnant Lady Macduff to death.  Even at his most cold-blooded, none of it ever seems to be enough for his wife.  Finally he is executed by the vengeful Macduff – the sight of his hanging corpse over the audience is truly haunting and there is something unnerving about the creaking noises seamlessly drifting into the faintly romantic ‘And A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ as we were led back into the Manderley bar.

Visit 2
If there are 2 things that really don’t mix, it’s a day of sightseeing on foot around New York followed by 3 hours of Punchdrunk.  Perhaps the McKittrick has magic floorboards that absorb the pain in your aching feet or the action is just so fascinating that it takes your mind off everything.  But having seen a good portion of the action yesterday, I decided to find out what was on that mysterious top floor – I found myself following a Male Nurse through a creepy looking hospital/asylum.  I was quite shocked by how rude some of the audience were (waving hands in front of his face, motioning that they were going to mess up the neatly laid out desk – it was all I could do not to thump them).  We wandered back and forth between the ward and the laundry room as he painstakingly laid out pyjamas on each bed.  There was a lot of this.  Eventually there was a dance in a window frame and a dash through a maze of twigs (both very evocative), but when I saw him go back into the laundry room, I decided it was perhaps time to go and find one of the other characters downstairs.

I found myself back at the scene where Macbeth murders Lady Macduff and the heartbreak as Macduff finds her sprawled out on the floor.  He scoops her up for one final dance and then gently lays her down on a chaise before leaving for a final act of vengeance.  But I found myself compelled to stay with her – there’s a real gentleness to her character, a lone nurturing figure at the mercy of the power struggle that surrounds her. Yet she seems constantly vulnerable and on edge: anxious about some impending fate. She plunges herself into ritual and superstition as a source of familiarity and comfort. Her dance at the top of a bookcase (where she seems to have stashed religious icons away from the view of her husband) is troubled and strangely harrowing for something so subtle.

I found myself back at the rave eventually, but having got there a bit earlier, I was just in time to hear and see something I’d missed the previous night in the mêlée of crowds and strobes: Hecate. Every inch the 1930s glamorous Hollywood blonde bombshell in a scarlet ballgown, she cackles manically. Had I not heard this, I may never have seen her. Her influence over the other witches is tangible, borderline Stockholm syndrome. Following her loop, I started to see the full extent of her Machiavellian streak and how she toys with all the other characters.  I was lucky enough to receive one of her 1:1s where she tells the story of a ship lost at sea – after plunging a paper boat into a teacup, I was dragged into a dark cupboard and had water sprayed in my face while she rocked me back and forth, howling with laughter. A chilling night.

Visit 3
I’m not a 1:1 hunter, but with only 2 visits left, I found myself with an urge to fill in a few gaps. So with the knowledge that Lady Macduff’s 1:1 happens soon after the party scene (and having missed it the previous night), I decided the first loop before the crowds got in might be a good time to at least ‘try’ for it. As it happens, there was only one other audience member who followed her, so I didn’t feel too guilty about accepting her hand when she offered. I was ushered into a room little bigger than a cupboard for more ritual and superstition – in a soothing voice, she told me a story “when you were a little girl, I used to give you a dab of salt behind the ear to keep you safe…”. So with salt behind my ear and a folded paper pocket filled with more salt, I was sent on my way.

I eventually found my way back to the banquet scene (which also preceeds the finale) – with a long table, it struck me how much it resembles a grotesque version of the painting ‘The Last Supper’ – more religious imagery that I hadn’t noticed before. From here I was able to pick up Banquo for a complete loop. As part of the reset, he helped to move the Christmas trees around the edge of the room are shuffled back into position to create a forest – suddenly I spotted the correlation with Birnam Wood being on the move.

There are many wonderful dances in Banquo’s sequence, but one of my favourites has to be in the hotel cloakroom with Macbeth as they clamber around the rails.  Some things seem to require an Olympian level of fitness (which I really don’t have), but after the party scene I somehow summoned the energy to race up 5 flights of stairs to keep up with Banquo.  I don’t know who was more impressed, me or him.  It didn’t take long before we’re back downstairs again to witness the aftermath of Duncan’s murder. I was lucky enough to be selected for his 1:1, which is where you get a little more of the Shakespeare text (given that much of the main action has no speaking).  “we have scorched the snake, not killed it….” and you start to sense his unease of things to come.  Eventually we ended up back upstairs (again!) in a makeshift speakeasy for a tense card game between Banquo, Malcolm and Macduff – there seems to be an endless stream of King of Diamonds cards in the pack, each of which is nailed to the wall – seemingly the king that they just can’t get rid of.

Visit 4
A final visit – and in some ways not my finest, as I found myself trying to pack too much in.  A slightly disjointed night of trying to second guess things and inevitably getting it wrong.  There is only so much of an agenda you can take in with you.  But I managed to follow Malcolm for what equated to one complete loop – just split down the middle when I lost him.  He also doubles as a detective-like character in Gallow Green, but when Macduff visits his office, they open a drawer filled with trees and move them around – another reference to Birnam wood.  I was also selected for his 1:1 (slightly disgusting – he spat a soggy feather into my hand).  But I managed to lose him as he ran out of his office, but having found Lady Macbeth, I followed her instead.

There is a real sense of her frustrations with her husband and some truly haunting moments when she goes up to the hospital ward on the 5th floor for a bath.  At every turn she seems to be trying to maintain face whilst completely losing it in private.  This allowed me to fill in the gaps which I’d missed while following Macbeth before heading back to find Malcolm at the point where I’d lost him.  He hadn’t gone far.  Eventually I caught him and Macduff as they raced into a small room for one of the most terrifying bits of choreography.  With room for about 6 audience, the interrogation room has a chair and a ceiling lamp on a long cord – which they promtly began to swing back and forth, constantly moving around and dodging the lamp.  Only it was swinging quite close to my face which was a little unnerving.  But an incredible feat in a confined space.

I’d hoped to follow a bit of Macduff for the final loop – so to spare myself those 5 flights of stairs at speed, I left the party scene a minute early (a wrench, even having watched it 10 times) and waited on the 4th floor for him to follow Banquo through the door.  Banquo arrived, but no Macduff.  Presumably one of the 3rd loop adaptations to get everyone to the finale at the same time!  With nothing for it, I found myself wandering around Gallow Green hunting for something I hadn’t seen.  But rather than ‘waste’ time running around the building, I found myself drawn to Agnes – the young woman in love with Malcolm.  Sleep No More also has Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ as a secondary storyline and Agnes is borrowed from this.

I found her in a small shop cutting a length of red cotton thread, tying it onto a locket and then snipping a few lines out of a book and folding it up to put in the locket.  For a final loop it seemed strange that she only had about 6 of us with her – there seemed to be a trend across my 4 visits of some characters being absolutely mobbed while others had a relatively small audience.  But before I knew what was going on, she had locked me with a stare, taken my hand and led me into a small living room and locked the door behind us.  (I do like a 1:1, but I often feel that they bear more weight when you have them in the context of a loop).  But she shut the pair of us in a wardrobe and whispered into my ear the opening paragraph of ‘Rebecca’ – ” Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…..”.  She placed the locket around my neck and told me it would keep me safe.  She then climbed out, leaving me to exit through a Narnia-like door into the back of the wardrobe.

**********************************************************

So all in all – a good trip.  Curiosity well and truly satisfied in 4 visits (perhaps a 5th would’ve been nice – although I could probably have said the same about a 6th and 7th).  It’s amazing how much you can see if you put your mind to it, do a bit of careful spoiler-free reading and have the discipline to walk away from scenes you’ve already seen.  Would I go back?  If someone can find me the money for flights, hotel and tickets – yes I would!  But for now, I’ll stick to the Punchdrunk shows that don’t require the use of my passport.

The Drowned Man (Punchdrunk) – Visit 12

For reasons I can’t think of, I didn’t do write ups for visits 7 to 11.  Apologies if you’re looking for them.  But for now they all blur into one and I couldn’t tell you for certain whether I saw a particular scene on visit 7 or visit 8.  Although visits 9 & 10 were both the same evening as I did the legendary ‘double’, with the second performance of the night being on the £85 premium ticket which gave a prologue (a nice touch for helping first timers to orientate themselves) but also gave me access to the Drafting Room – which I only found on visit 9 and gives you lots of details about characters, who they are and where their story takes them through the building (I stupidly didn’t make as much use of this as I should’ve done).  Now that premium tickets have ceased and there are 2 new types of tickets – Luna’s List and Studio Exec – wild speculation has ensued about what will happen to the premium rooms.

When The Drowned Man opened, it was originally going to finish on 31st December 2013.  So we booked tickets for New Year’s Eve (because where else would any self respecting Punchdrunk addict want to spend the final hours of the year other than in Temple Studios?  That was visit 7).  But the news we’d all hoped for came in November: Run extended to 23rd February 2014.  So tickets were booked again to say a fond farewell to a place we had come to love and cast who had bewitched our hearts and minds.  Because nasty Crossrail were going to gut the building, do some railway stuff in the basement and turn the place into flats.  But extension after extension was granted to Punchdrunk and although tickets currently go up to April, there’s talk of performers being contracted through to September.  Farewell bank balance, it was nice knowing you.

So on ‘Not The Last Show’ (my show 11), a friend insisted that I follow the character of William as played by Paul Zivkovich.  I did and he broke my heart.  Ok so it doesn’t quite excuse him murdering his girlfriend, but to witness his descent into paranoia was devastating.  It occurred to me that in 10 visits, I had never really followed any of the main characters as listed on the little bit of paper (the two love triangles: William, Mary, Dwayne and Wendy, Marshall, Dolores).  I’ve caught snippets here and there, but never a whole sequential loop.  There are plenty of other characters on the list too, but I figured it was time to stray out of the peripheral and back to the main stories.  My trouble recently has been not knowing where to find people at any given time, so I’ve simply ended up watching scenes I’ve already seen because I know that will lead me to a character I haven’t followed.  I do of course enjoy those scenes (I am yet to get bored of the Hoedown), but I know there’s an untold number that have so far eluded me and I want to see them.

Having frivolously shelled out £1 for delivery to have ticket in hand, I managed to skip the Box Office queue, get through the cloakroom and into the first lift.  With a bit of knowledge on where to find my targets, I raced up from basement to ground floor to the Studio 4 set to find – as hoped – Wendy (Leslie Ann Kraus) and Marshall (James Finnemore) lying on the bed in their caravan.  I’ve never seen either of these two in these roles (I’ve always caught snippets with them played by other performers) so was intrigued to see how they’d compare.  They didn’t disappoint.

Wendy’s dance in the trees

With Marshall gone and other audience following him, I had Wendy all to myself.  She got up and then began her dance through the trees – one with the first flickers of suspicion, climbing and sketching her limbs through the air.  As she came down there was a glance as she clocked me, a terrified and troubled look in her eyes.  I was treated to these glances and stares throughout almost the entirety of her loop, initially seeming to unnerve her by the fact that she thought she could see me, but as more audience accumulated, she seemed almost to search for me as a source of familiarity.  As the parallel female version of William, Wendy too has her descent into paranoia.  At one point she threw herself at me, grabbed my throat and hissed something into my ear – but with her fragile emotional state it was all I could do not to gather her into my arms to try and offer some sort of comfort.  As she walks into Mr Stanford’s party to witness Marshall’s infidelity (and the complicity of her best friend), she shakes with such violence that you wonder if she might be physically ill.

As the scenes came full circle, I switched over to Marshall to follow his loop, but still unable to get Wendy’s gut-wrenching arc out of my head.  This only served to make him seem all the more guilty.  Yet his character seems to be yearning for some sort of escape, so that the more paranoid Wendy becomes, the further he plunges into his affair.  Yet as I followed him (occasionally difficult with large numbers of people doing the same), I started to realise just how easily he is influenced and that much of his infidelity is engineered by others rather than being motivated solely by his own desires.  It is these other cold, calculating characters who lay a trail of evidence to ensure that all of Wendy’s suspicions are confirmed, yet Marshall seems to be genuinely unaware of their agenda, especially once drugged ahead of Stanford’s party.  But as we are led to witness his murder, he seems to stumble up the hill, totally oblivious of what’s about to happen to him.  Whether he is sorry for his actions (or sorry that he got caught) remains ambiguous to the last, but he simply becomes collateral damage in what appears to be the grand design: to provoke a very real reaction from Wendy – just for the camera.

But in many ways, it is having followed many of those ‘other’ characters in previous visits which has perhaps altered my perspective of what I see; without the context of the machinations going on behind the scenes, this would just be a textbook affair.  But the level of manipulation is such that this begs a very unsettling question: how many of our decisions and our actions are truly our own?